By Olivo Castillo
For the longest time when someone asked me “what kind of music do you listen to?” my go-to answer was “pretty much anything but country.” That changed once I discovered Sturgill Simpson. The Ballad of Dood and Juanita is the latest release from the modern-day country outlaw, released via the High Top Mountain label on Aug. 20, 2021.
The most exciting part about a new Sturgill Simpson album is seeing what musical direction he goes in next. Simpson has always been one to follow his own musical intuition, and trust his audience to go along for the ride. From the twangy psychedelic overtones of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, to the lush string and horn arrangements on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, to the more hard-rock-inspired, synth-heavy Sound and Fury.
Despite these stylistic shifts, Simpson has been able to maintain a strong identity as a songwriter thanks to his potent and vulnerable lyrics. His last two records, Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 & 2, brought possibly his sharpest stylistic turn to date, converting songs from his back catalog into bluegrass tunes. Now, while I had been a fan of Simpson’s before Cuttin’ Grass came out, these records are what made me really fall in love with his work. Breaking these songs down to their core elements and interpreting them in a style that some might dismissively refer to as just “hillbilly music” seems like a big enough task on its own. However, this shift provided a whole new dimension to these songs. They showed me how creatively adept a musician Simpson is.
The Ballad of Dood and Juanita keeps with the bluegrass aesthetic, but has some sonic surprises to elevate the tone as well. Since this is a ballad, the album revolves around the tale of the sharpshootin’ frontiersman Dood rescuing his beloved Juanita after she’s kidnapped by a bandit. Though the story is simple, the setting and characters are presented in such a rich way that engulfs you from the start.
The use of sound effects, such as in “Prologue” where the sounds of gunfire are heard behind the military march style acapella opening, paints a vivid picture that give context to the story and feel reminiscent of something you might have heard on an old radio play. The shift from a third-person perspective to a first-person perspective in the second act, allows a more intimate look at Dood as a character. The toll of the journey begins to weigh on him, and his hope starts to run thin.
The centerpiece of the album “Juanita” serves as the prime example of how Simpson utilizes his musical choices to make the story more dramatic. The song is done in the style of a Spanish ballad, complete with shaker and clave accompaniment with the violin, mandolin, and guitars playing in a more traditional Spanish fashion.
Lyrically, we see Dood lamenting his beloved wife, and channeling his sorrow into strength so he can continue on his quest. Top it all off with a surprise guitar solo from Willie Nelson and you have yourself a country ballad for the ages. Brilliant moments like this shine all throughout the album whether on the acapella prayer tune “Sam” or the slick and cinematic closing track “Ol’ Dood (Part II)” which showcases the final standoff between Dood and the bandit.
The Ballad of Dood and Juanita is a simple, effective record that uses the bluegrass tradition as a foundation to develop a story that is rich in character and charm.
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